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Speak, Memory: Recent Paintings by Fedele Spadafora

04/03/2013 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

Fedele Spadafora is a New York artist who is in the home stretch of that anxious journey which characterizes the development of the technically-trained painter: he is just about done making pictures in homage to his skills, and has nearly made his skills the servants of a vision.

Spadafora's work has never been brightly colored, and he has never been a partisan of the pleasing shape. His palette is getting gloomier, and his images, as often as not, more indistinct. They give a jostling shoulder to our sensual appetites. That's fine, there is more to us than our sensual appetites. Spadafora provides rewards in a currency in scarce supply.

Consider his 2011 painting Stage Diner:

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Fedele Spadafora, Stage Diner, 24"x36", oil on canvas, 2011

At the time that he painted it, he explained that he was interested in the scenario that "plays out in the melancholy diners and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are quickly being replaced by Starbucks, T-Mobile, and Chase." This body of work is elegiac; it is set in a present that is rapidly fading into the past. And yet, for all that, it is the present. You can still visit those diners and order toast and eggs. Spadafora picks out the utterly characteristic details of these vanishing environments: the qualities of daylight filtered through front windows, the white uniforms, the half-empty bottles of ketchup, the yellow plastic pitchers. Look at Stage Diner again. It looks casual, haphazard. But it is an essay in careful construction, in arrangement of things we notice and things we miss.

Later, Spadafora felt that his technique constrained him, and he cast around for subject matter in which he could indulge his growing interest in looser paint handling. At the same time, he was seeking a deeper emotional connection to his work. So he began to make paintings of old family photographs:

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Fedele Spadafora, Second Place, 50"x38", acrylic on paper, 2012

This composition is done almost entirely in bluish-grays and browns. There is very little in it to satisfy the eye. And yet it is dense with recognizable history and emotion. A father and son stand together. The father is an immigrant. The son, either transplanted here as an infant or born here, is already American. The son is perhaps not the most talented of his generation, but he is talented enough to have won second place at something - a high school art contest? Does this explain the odd little statue bottom left? He has won second place, in a contest of questionable meaning: perhaps the contest matters, and perhaps it doesn't. Perhaps the son's ambitions will come to something, or perhaps they will be futile. The son cannot know, and neither can the father. The son is blinded by adolescent excitements, by youth's flawed measurement of opportunity. The father is blinded by pride - he glows with pride in the talent of his son. His life is not an easy or exciting life; he vests his hopes in his son.

All these things we read at the narrative level of the painting. But what's really interesting about this painting formally is the more radical elisions of detail Spadafora introduces into an at-first-glance realist idiom. The father's suit is little more than an outline. The son's legs are nearly indistinguishable. Their faces are half-missing. The son hardly has any eyes; the father's eyes are absent altogether. And yet, the father's suit buttons glow hard and distinct, and the lettering "2 PLACE" is clear on the otherwise murky award.

Looking at the painting, we are not immediately disturbed by these odd presences and absences. They work. And they work because Spadafora, it turns out, is very good at tackling his deep subject. His deep subject isn't what the painting is a picture of. It's memory. Spadafora, in leaping from lonely diners to family photos, is leaping from perception of the present, to the uneven realm of memory. Here he finds his real métier.

Consider this dinner scene:

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Fedele Spadafora, Around the Table, 44"x60", acrylic on paper, 2011, courtesy of Brian Jacobson

Once again, how recognizable this is! The clothing of the mid-century Italian family - either here or back there - the decanter of wine, the stiff stare of the older generation into the camera. Years later, you pull out the cracked photograph and point to faces and ask some senior relative about the people in the picture, and your relative says, "That's your second cousin, this is your great-uncle, you don't remember him, he died when you were three or four..."

Look at those faces! Some of them are legible, others have entirely vanished. The woman on the left - you can remember her hair and her high collars, but you cannot summon her face any longer. The man on the right is so much younger in this picture than you remember him, look, his hair is still dark, and that glowering brow was always the same.

These people stare at us out of the past, their grip is strong but it is slipping. That's how memory works. The food on the table has vanished, the room has vanished, the sitters are slowly erasing. Only textures are persisting, so specific, and yet detaching from the objects, people, places, and events in which they inhered. Spadafora has made memory and forgetting visible.

This brings us right up to two present bodies of work. Spadafora is showing at Mighty Tanaka, a gallery in Dumbo (for those of you not in New York, D.U.M.B.O. is an idiotic cooked-up acronym for a neighborhood in lower Brooklyn - Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) - where was I? Oh yes, the Tanaka show. This is a two-person show, where Spadafora's somber reflections are startlingly paired with Jeff Faerber's catchy, horny nudes.

Spadafora's work in this show reflects another iteration of his exploration of memory. He has narrowed his focus from the ethnic, the historical, and the familial, to the personal. In short, he has painted a bunch of screen-grabs from The Lawrence Welk Show. Of course, why not? Fedele's generation was raised by television (he is a few years older than I am); the Big Three network monoculture forms some of their most personal primary memories.

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Fedele Spadafora, Green Lady, 12"x16", oil on panel, 2012

What a distinct formulation this is -- "There was a woman on the show - I don't remember who she was - but she had a kind face, and very pretty, and glamorous -- I will remember her face for the rest of my life."

This was how boys Fedele's age were first introduced to women who were not family, or friends, or neighbors. It was how they learned to conceive of romance.

Here he makes three paintings of nearly the same frame:

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Fedele Spadafora, Little Girl Singing I, II, and III, each 12"x16", oil on panel, 2013

He reinterprets her in each image, replicating the stutter of a failing memory: "Was it like this? Was this it? Or...?"

Each time, elements leap out with total clarity, but the clarity does not signify the present. It signifies the irregular working of memory, which retains everything about some things, and little about others, and moreover, which things are so faithfully retained changes over time. Details come to the fore and later fade back into the indistinctness. We grasp at what we once knew, and we will recognize it if we see it again. But on our own, we have lost the complete picture, and do not even recall that there was a complete picture to lose. Spadafora finds in The Lawrence Welk Show a rich substrate for his exploration of the intermittencies of memory.

Now we come to Spadafora's solo show at Slag Gallery, in Bushwick (also Brooklyn). We began with Spadafora's earlier work, which consisted in observation of the present. It was tinged with nostalgia, but had not yet made that break which propelled it into the realm of the remembered.

The Slag show returns us to the present and the near present. But it is a present transformed by Spadafora's investigation of our own mechanisms of remembering. It is present-as-memory. This kind of claim would inevitably contain a whiff of bullshit without the most apropos of subject matter. Spadafora has lucked into precisely such matter. He was in Prague just after the fall of Communism and Tunisia just after the Arab Spring. If there's anything that people can't get straight in their heads even while it's happening, it's revolutions.

Consider his painting of the Žižkov Television Tower in Prague:

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Fedele Spadafora, TV Tower, 32"x10", oil on canvas, 2013

This example of late Communist architecture looms in the painting, as it does over Prague. The painting is detached from narrative, and yet menace floats around it. There is something threatening and awful to it. In its mute stillness, it encodes days of chaos and uncertainty, the terror of the tyrants, heightened in the hour of their fall, before the fall is guaranteed, when the repercussions for having stood up will be most terrible if they should not, in the end, fall. Spadafora's TV Tower is an electric icon of fear. But it is not an observation of revolution. It is the kind of detail that sticks in the mind from the days of the revolution - days when impressions were jumbled and confusing, and could not settle properly. "What do I remember of those days? For some reason I think of the blue sky and the TV tower, it used to jam signals from the West, you could see it from everywhere and it was a symbol of the old regime, a blight on the city..."

Then Spadafora finds himself in Tunisia in 2010. Here is what he chose to paint:

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Fedele Spadafora, Djerba I, 12"x20", oil on canvas, 2012

You know what that looks like to me? It looks like he painted a snapshot he took from the window of a moving car. Having been among the people while society was upheaving, he asked himself, "What was most characteristic about it? What do I retain?" And the answer was: the buildings and the landscape, passing by alongside the road. It makes sense. A revolution cannot consume everything, there are never enough people to fill an entire nation with riots and fires. Most of the time, most of the places must be as they always were, quiet, sparsely populated. The weather will go on unimpeded. These zones of calm stuck with Spadafora, and he painted them. But there is an intensity to it, that same revolutionary vibrancy and menace, which he saw in the television tower in Prague.

In two paintings in the show, he summons an unreal image to express the impression the scene made on him. Twice he paints it, a falling star over Djerba, what they used to call a prodigy. It is as stylized as a meteor in a medieval manuscript:

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Fedele Spadafora, Horizon, 36"x72", oil on canvas, 2012

I think he catches here the sentiment Auden expresses in his 1938 poem Musée des Beaux Arts about Brueghel's painting of the fall of Icarus:

...everything turns away


Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may


Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,


But for him it was not an important failure...

the expensive delicate ship that must have seen


Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,


had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

What Spadafora seems to have seen in Tunisia is a terrific change in the context of a much larger stability. The foundations of the city and the land are unmoved by the excitement of the day, and yet the excitement of the day is significant, meaningful, and difficult to comprehend. He envisions what he sees before him as a shooting star, but he contextualizes the shooting star in an Auden-like landscape of indifference, of other priorities.

These most recent paintings record a consciousness seeing the present itself through the window, not of observation, but of memory. Each thing is an image of itself, already distorted and hazed by the unreliable mind and heart. Having started with the present, Spadafora has circled back around to the present. Along the way, he dredged up precious things which were nearly lost. I have no idea what he will do next - there is no means of logically deriving it. But don't you think it's exciting? An artist turns to paint and canvas and says, "What am I? What have I been and what remains of me?" He approaches the canvas with austerity and discipline, and what do you know - the canvas answers. That's very exciting. The answer is exciting, and the means of acquiring it is exciting. More power to you, Fedele Spadafora.

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Fedele Spadafora online: http://fedelespadafora.net/

at Mighty Tanaka: "The Subliminal & Sublime," until April 5th, 111 Front Street, Suite 224, Brooklyn, NY 11201, online: http://www.mightytanaka.com/

at Slag Gallery: "Fedele Spadafora," until April 18th, 56 Bogart Street, Ground Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11206, online: http://www.slaggallery.com/